Is Blumenthal sunk?

The New York Times reported today that Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General of Connecticut and leading candidate to replace Senator Christopher Dodd, misspoke about his service in the Marines Reserves during the Vietnam War.  He reportedly sought 5 deferments before joining the Marine Reserves in 1969, where he served until 1975.  However, Blumenthal said in 2008 at an event in Norwalk, CT, “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam.”  Apparently, Blumenthal has been vague about describing his service during the Vietnam War for years, which resulted in misleading profiles, like this one in Slate magazine, which stated that “he enlisted in the Marines rather than duck the Vietnam draft.”

Blumenthal was a rising political star even back in the late 1960s.  He completed graduate school at Harvard, a graduate fellowship at Cambridge, and served as a special assistant to Washington Post publisher, Katherine Graham, and finally got a job in the Nixon White House.  However, when deferments were becoming difficult to obtain, he obtained a what the Times calls a “coveted spot” in the Marine Reserve, “which virtually guaranteed that he would not be sent to Vietnam.”

It is difficult to imagine a Marine Reserve unit today being viewed as a way to avoid war.  Today, because we do not have a draft, and because we are fighting two large scale engagements at once, we routinely send Reserve Units for repeat deployments into Iraq and Afghanistan.  Periodically a politician will introduce legislation to bring back the draft, because many believe that the Reserves today make up for the draft.  The Reserves are known in some circles as a ‘back door draft’ because of the Stop-Loss policies, which allow enlistments to be extended indefinitely beyond initial service obligations.

However, when Blumenthal was a Marine Reservist, the draft was in full effect, and many people tried to avoid it.  In 2008, he said at a rally, “I served during the Vietnam era.  I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse.”  Because Blumenthal spent time working in DC, and participating in many public events in Uniform, he certainly had first-hand knowledge about how Veterans were treated.  However, there is a fine line between people who have battlefield experience, and those who served away from the front lines.  Military service, especially during Vietnam, is heavily politicized. Senator John Kerry was attacked for not deserving his Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Silver Star awards.  Nicholas Kristoff wrote during the 2004 Presidential campaign that :

“In fact, as Mr. Kerry was about to graduate from Yale, he was inquiring about getting an educational deferment to study in Europe. When that got nowhere, he volunteered for the Navy, which was much less likely to involve danger in Vietnam than other services. After a year on a ship in the ocean, Mr. Kerry volunteered for Swift boats, but at that time they were used only in Vietnam’s coastal waters. A short time later, the Swift boats were assigned exceptionally dangerous duties up Vietnamese rivers. “When I signed up for the Swift boats, they had very little to do with the war,” Mr. Kerry wrote in 1986, adding, “I didn’t really want to get involved in the war.”

Of course, Kerry ended up in harms way, but he was not too far off from Blumenthal, a privileged, well-educated young man that did not want to fight in the war.  Kerry managed to distinguish himself, but that did not stop Republicans from attacking him.  Today, it is Republican candidate Linda McMahon that is taking credit for the opposition research that inspired the Times report.

Looking at the statements that have been attributed to Blumenthal, it strikes a personal chord.  Last year I left the Navy after 11 years of service as a Naval Officer, and while I deployed to the Persian Gulf, and served briefly in areas from which I received special hazardous duty pay, I never went to Afghanistan or Iraq.  Still, I received a Medal after September 11 for service in the ‘Global War on Terror.’  When I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles, I received a license plate that has ‘Veteran’ on it, based on my active-duty service around the world after 9/11.  Today, we treat Veterans very different than we did back in the 1970s.  Still, I have no doubt that in coming years there will be political attacks on Veterans for ‘not really’ serving in the War on Terror.

Blumenthal’s statements to me do not fall to the level of lies, but merely ambiguities about his generation and war.   Clearly, the McMahon campaign hopes that this will sink Blumenthal.  Looking back at Blumenthal’s experience prior to his enlistment, and after enlisting in the Marine Reserves, there does not appear to be a lot of distance between Blumenthal and Kerry.  They tried to avoid the war, like many privileged and educated kids did during the Draft.

Ultimately, Blumenthal spent that time serving his country in a different but also honorable way.  While there was some ambiguity about how people described that experience, and while Blumenthal should have been more careful about the conclusions that reporters and supporters made, this episode will be blown way out of proportion.  That is what happens in modern politics.    In some ways Americans of Vietnam vintage have still not come to terms about how Veterans were treated, and how military service in the 1960s and 1970s is viewed.  Unfortunately, long after the Americans left Saigon, that conflict continues to eat us from within.  Ultimately, Blumenthal should be judged on his political accomplishments, which Connecticut residents of all stripes have long valued.